Monday, October 18, 2010

2010 Season comes to a close at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, IL

Well, the season is over, and, all things considered, I think we had a good run. In three years we've competed in a total of 16 contests, many teams we compete against do more than that in a single season.
This year we did 6, and got a total of 7 calls
Westmont,IL 5/2010 - 2nd place pork, 5th brisket
Lowell, MI - 5th place pork
Kingsford, MI - 1st place pork, 6th brisket
Milwaukee 6th place pork
Arthur, IL - uh,,,nothing
Libertyville, IL 1st place dessert (photo above)

This was our second year competing in Libertyville, and we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful weekend to do it on. Temps on friday were in the low 60's, and the weather was just beautiful. Claudia, the contest organizer, and her whole crew did a fantastic job, and overall the venue was better than ever. We decided early to take our time, and not try and rush to get out of there on Saturday, and of course, we were the last team out saturday evening (about 6PM). By late afternoon most all the teams had arrived, one of the surprises to me was seeing Johnny Trigg (of TLC's Pitmasters series). I normally only see him this far north for the Shannon, IL contest. Not sure what brought him up this time, but I noticed he was not cooking on his normal Jambo cooker, but had a sweet looking Jambo that I think he had on loan from someone.

But the time between getting there and leaving is what it's all about! We were there just after noon on Friday, got our site set up, and our meat inspected by one or so. I had done 90% of all the trimming in advance this time, which made the whole process much more relaxing. All I needed to do was mix up my injections/marinades, do the fine trimming, and prep the smokers. Pork went in about 5:30 PM, and everything else was set in time for the 6PM cooks meeting.

After the cooks meeting, Jeff and crew, of Stockcar BBQ hosted a beautiful ham feast in honor of his teammate Angelos' birthday. He cooked up 2 gargantuan hams in his Lang cooker, along with a big batch of some kind of SPAM dish. We brought over a big pot of chili, and some of our Hog Jam, a sweet and savory conserve we hope to be marketing soon. Everyone seemed to like the chili, it all got eaten up, and the ham was delicious! (especially if you put some Hog Jam on it!) There were also a couple of cakes, and Jeff's team brought out the last of their Raki supply. (Raki being an unusual greek beverage, somewhat akin to Italian grappa) when knocking it back like a shot, as many folks did, I don't think you really get a chance to taste the subtleties that you do if you sip it. After chow, we headed back to the pop-up to grab our last bottle of apple pie shots (made onsite after arrival) and do the last "Shot-Fairy" run of the year.

We were running a bit late, since we stayed at the dinner a while, so some folks had already turned in by the time we got done making the rounds, so our apologies to anyone we missed.

We turned in about 1:30 or 2AM, and I was back up about 6:30, giving the chicken a quick brine, rubbing down the ribs, and putting the last of the rub on the brisket. Seems that, if I'm late to get chicken into the cooker, everything else runs hectic, but this time, brisket, chicken, ribs, and pork were all on schedule, and everything seemed to go pretty smoothly.

At about 9:15, we wandered over to Stockcar's site for the traditional 9:22 shot of Gentleman Jack. It's kind of a time honored tradition at BBQ contests, where we all get together to toast one anothers good fortune! The past couple of years, it was hosted by Walt of the Smokin' Scotsmen, but they were unable to make it over from Michigan this year, so Jeff filled in for the toast.

 I was really happy with just about everything, except the brisket. There is a fine line between done to perfection, and overdone. Although the internal temp of my brisket was about 195, and a probe stuck in it felt like it was sliding into a stick of room temp butter, it turned out to be just slightly underdone, and although it tasted good, I thought the texture was off.

After the brisket turn in, Diane worked feverishly on finishing her dessert (pictured above). Pam, from Sly Fox BBQ gave her a hand, and I tried to help as best I could. So, that out of the way, we started the long teardown process. Dessert turn in was at 2, and awards were to be at 3:30, so I had an hour and a half to wash up all the dishes, tear down the tables and EZ-Up, etc. while Diane was putting things away in the camper. It takes her a while, because Ember seems to whine a lot when it's close to time to go. She loves her "camping trips" because it's the only time we allow her to sleep with us. At home, she has her crate, but at comps, she makes herself at home in our bed.
By 3:20, we had the canopy down, tables almost cleared, and were ready to head to the awards ceremony.

Normally, they do sides, if any, first, and usually announce the top 3 or 5, from the bottom up. This one was different. We'd barely sat down when they announced the winner of the dessert category was 2 Skinny Cooks! Di was ecstatic as she walked up and collected her trophy, and 100 bucks cash!

Well, as it turned out, that would be the last call we were to hear.

Overall, we finished 29 of 46 teams. To be fair, about 5 of those teams only cooked ribs, so really we were more like 29 of 40.

Chicken was 29 of 40, no idea why, we scored 13th the week before in Arthur with the same box practically. Ribs were worse, at 43rd of 45.

Our pork, which had been doing well for us at 4 of our previous 5 comps went MIA in the last two of the year, placing 31 of 53 in Arthur, and 20 of 40 at Libertyville. (at least it went up?!?)
Brisket went 23 of 41. So, except for ribs, pretty solidly in the middle.

All in all, I would call our season a success. For us anyway.

Westmont IL --       2nd place pork, 5th place brisket
Lowell, MI --         5th place pork
Iron Mountain, MI  1st place pork, 5th place brisket
Milwaukee, WI -    6th place pork
Arthur, IL                5th place dessert, 6th place side dish, 8th place sausage
Libertyville             1st place dessert, with a 179.4286 score. Almost a perfect 180!

So, now it's time to winterize the camper, pull all the freezable stuff out and back into the house, and dream and plan for next season.

In the mean time, we'll work on getting our "Hog Jam" to market, tweak some recipes, and look forward to seeing our bbq pals at an occaisional off season get-together!

Yours in the sweet blue
Dann and Di

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Arthur, IL - Central Illinois Bragging Rights - Well, no calls - But still a great time!

Well, our fifth comp of the year has come and gone, with mixed results. But regardless of the results, we had a great time!

We hit the road to Arthur at around 1PM on Thursday. It's normally around a three hour drive for us if we go straight through, but we stopped for a late lunch so arrived around 5:30 or so in Arthur. I really like, when I'm able, to arrive the evening before the actual first day of the contest. This allows us to set up at a much less frantic pace, and to relax and enjoy ourselves a bit more. Thursday afternoon I set up the pop-up, and Di set about taking care of the inside while I set up our outdoor setup. (cookers, tables, canopy, etc. Our nearest nighbor Thursday were the good folks from team Yankee Gator. It was an unseasonably warm evening for October, and didn't get much below 45 or so all night!

We slept pretty well, despite the regular freight trains that roll through Arthur on a somewhat regular basis all night long, and I got up around 7:30 and begen to get the smokers prepped for later in the day.

By this time, most of the rest of the teams were rolling in and setting up, ultimately there would be 53 teams in attendance, I believe the most ever for Arthur so far!

In retrospect, I feel like we spent a lot more time on the side categories, sauce, dessert, sausage, and side dish, than we should have, and I think it may have taken my eye off the ball somewhat when it came to the main 4 categories. Lesson learned? Stick to the main BBQ and forget about all the ancillary stuff!

When all was said and done, this was our worst showing this year, in that we had 0 calls, none, nada, zip, for the first time all year.

The upsides, the few there were, were that, in chicken, where we have always struggled, we were 13th of 53, so not a bad effort!  The other 3 categories were largely forgettable, and I'll be doing my best to do that, and just dust ourselves off and have at it another day! Pork, where we've been top ten 4 of 4 times before, was 31st. And, having just tasted a bit the Tuesday after, I have to say I can't say why!

But there were high points just the same! Our freind Dan, from the Barbecue Brethren site took the Grand Champion of the backyard category in his first contest effort! We were very happy for him!
And, at the end of the day, it was a beautiful weekend, with great weather, great freinds, and great barbecue! Can't ask for much better!

So new there is one more comp left on our schedule, at Lamb's Farm in Libertyville this weekend. This is one of our favorite comps, in that it supports a really great cause. They help a large number of children and adults with a variety of developmental disabilities to become productive members of society in just so many ways, and they're very successful at it! You can learn much more at their site

The truck and trailer are still mostly packed from last weekend, so this should be an easy one to prep for. We're going to try and go out on an up note!

More next week!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Milwaukee, WI - Ouch!

Well, the judges didn't like us much in Beer Town! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For some reason, although I usually prep all our meats on site, this time I decided to do it ahead of time at home. To clarify, I'm talking about trimming meat, not seasoning, bringing, etc. That has to wait until after the meat is inspected. But many folks, the smarter ones, it could be argued, do all thier trimming at home. I may join that camp after this one! For whatever reason, as I said, I decided to get it out of the way ahead of time this time, and it was a fortunate decision! The 22 lb. package of "bone in" pork butts I'd purchased turned out to be bone-less! And looked as though it'd been boned with a cherry bomb! To those who bought boneless pork with the intent of making sausage, or something similar, that wouldn't be an issue, but for barbecue, it presents a huge problem, because it's difficult, if not impossible, to get the meat to cook evenly when it's cut that way. So, another quick trip to the store for a real pair of bone-in butts.

Got everything else but chicken trimmed up, decided to do those on-site, finished packing up, and relaxed a bit for the busy day to follow.

We rolled in about 2 or 3PM Friday after a relatively uneventful ride up to Wisconsin. Temps were not bad here in IL when we left, but when we got to Milwaukee we were met with temps in the low 50's, winds steady around 20 MPH, cloudy skies spitting rain here and there....and it was cold! 

We were told we were to be next to our freinds Nick and Beth, of team Moose BBQ, where we requested to be, so we quickly set about moving the trailer into place and setting up. Once set up, Diane stayed with Ember in the trailer, and I went to grab us some dinner at the pot luck organized by some of the teams. It was also a surprise anniversary party for Andy and Kim of Smoke On Wheels BBQ, who were celebrating thier 12th last weekend. The event organizer, Marjorie, was thoughtful enough to purchase a cake for them as well! The cooks meeting followed, and it was at that point that I'd forgotted to pack our lettuce and parsley for our garnishes!

I didn't allow myself to panic, but knew we might be in big trouble. Fortunately, June, from Bearcat smokers was kind enough to give me a ride to a grocery store (my truck was boxed in at this point) and our greens fiasco was resolved. I trimmed up our chicken, and at that point we went on a little visiting trip, to just go say hello to our fellow competitors, have a few libations, and try and enjoy the cool Fall-like evening.

The only down side to the whole day was the wind. Many chose to put up thier canopies in spite of it, but we opted to keep ours down until the wind died down. Well, there was another down side. The number of teams this year was just over half of the number of teams last year. I felt really bad for the organizer Marjorie, who works so hard to put on this event. I really hope she has a better turnout next year!
With only 16 teams competing, that meant there wouldn't even be three full tables of judges.

Saturday morning, got up, checked on the pork, and began the usual Saturday routine. Boxes done, meats on schedule, everything looking good! Turn in went pretty smoothly, and I was happy with all our meats, with the possible exception of the ribs, which, although tasty, were just about 10-15 minutes shy of being done perfectly. I'd have left them in longer, but there just wasn't time, so we went with what we had.  With turn in's done at 1:30, we set about packing up as much as possible before the award ceremony at 3. A member of the Barbecue Brethren forum, Jamie, had stopped by earlier to say hello, and offered to help tear down, and we gratefully accepted his help. We managed to complete all but about an hours worth of packing up prior to awards, and went off to see how we did.

Well, coming into this contest, we've been having what we feel is a good year. We'd done 3 comps and recieved 5 top ten calls, with 4 of those being "money" or top 5 calls that came with a check. As I'd mentioned, I was pretty happy with all of our entries, and with such a small field, expected to do reasonably well.

Well, for chicken, we were DAL - Dead A-- Last, as the expression goes. We hadn't had that dubious honor since our second contest ever, coincidentally enough, in chicken! However, our freinds from Moose got thier first call ever at 7th, and our neighbors on the other side, Taming of the Q, for whom this was thier first ever comp, got first place! We were very happy and excited for them, and that took some of the sting of not hearing our name away.

Next was ribs, again, we weren't called at all, and later found we'd once again taken DAL.

Pork remained good for us, although not good enough for a check, we came in at 6th, and Moose cam in 2nd, their day was shaping up nicely! At least we've been top 10 pork every time out

Finally was brisket, and once again, no call.But, no DAL either, so I guess that's something! In the end, we were 15th of 16 overall. But we saw our freinds Walt and Theresa, Smokin' Scotsmen take Reserve Grand Champion, and our other freinds Moose get 3 calls, thier first ever, and it was great to see them walking on air!

As for us, our scores, compared to my feelings about our meats just didn't add up, so I'll credit it to a fluke and we'll move on. I certainly wouldn't change much that we're doing as I don't believe we need to. At the end of the day, we still had a great time, and now just need to dust ourselves off and hit it harder next time.

Two more comps to go before we call it a season.....

Monday, August 30, 2010

So now the second half begins...

So, the trailer is all packed for next weekends comp in Milwaukee. All that's left to do is get the meat, pack the truck, and go! Such a difference from two years ago, when it took two days of lunacy to try and get everything packed...and so much brought that we didn't need! I suppose it's the boy scout mentality, "be prepared" ! Thing is, we've realized we don't really bring that much less these days, be just pack it all in a much more efficient manner.  We used to be the last team to leave, because it took so long to pack up. Now, if we're late getting out, it's because we've been chatting with our fellow competitors, and saying thank you to some of the events' supporting staff.

Milwaukee promises to be a challenge! Andy and Kim of Smoke on Wheels BBQ will be returning to defend their championship from last year, and they are on a tear this year! 12 comps, 3 Grand Championships, and 2 Reserve Grands! Congrats guys!!! Also looks like Walt and Theresa of Smokin' Scotsmen will make it. Going into last weekend they were still not sure.  And we'll be setting up next to our freinds Beth and Nick of Moose BBQ. I know many of our other bbq freinds will be there as well. Should be a great start to Labor Day weekend!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Season three - part deux

So we're coming close to the end of summer, and of the short haitus we've taken from competition.

We catered a party for some freinds last weekend, 60-80 folks, cooked up 2 14lb briskets, and 2 10 lb. pork butts. Folks sure do like fresh Barbecue! Now it's time to start packing the truck for the Jimmy Buffett tailgate/concert on Saturday!

Our comp season will start up again over Labor Day weekend, at the Milwaukee "Brew Cities Best" competition. Was a great comp last year. Should be a good one again!

More on that in a week or two

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Lake Michigan Tour continues......

So, Lowell was finished, we packed up most of our stuff Saturday afternoon, loaded the truck almost completely, and decided to take a break, have some dinner, relax, and check out the fireworks later that night. Fortunately, Lowell is one of the rare events to have showers available to contestants, and they were kind enough to leave them open Saturday evening, so we were able to clean up a bit. Something one can only truly appreciate if you've gone through a whole weekend of bbq competition, and aren't the owner of a fancy trailer or motor home equipped with a shower! As an aside, we've actually kind of solved that problem now. Our little Coleman instant water heater has a shower hose available, and we now are able to use it, and a little porta-potty enclosure we bought for obvious other purposes to put up a portable shower stall at these events. We first tested it in Iron Mountain, MI....but...I'm getting ahead of myself!

Anyway, the fireworks were spectacular. For a reletively small village, Lowell does a GREAT job with these! Sunday morning, we finished packing, and around one or so, we were on the road to Escanaba, in the gorgeous Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We made our way up MI-131, through Grand Rapids, Cedar Springs, Big Rapids, Reed City, jogging east through Cadillac, Lake City, and Houghton Lake, finally catching I-75 north near Roscommon.

Once on I-75, a north/south interstate that runs from the UP on its northernmost end, all the way through to south Florida, we continued north, through Indian River, to Mackinaw, over the 4 mile long Mackinaw bridge to St. Ignace, and finally jogged west toward Escanaba, where we would stay Sunday through Wednesday night with my high school freinds, Mary and Gary. (more on them later)

The reason I go into such detail on the cities we passed through on our journey, is that many of them have nostalgic meaning to me. Although I've lived in the greater Chicago area since my release from the US Navy in 1982, I was born and raised in Dearborn, MI. And spent a lot of time as a kid travelling through Michigan. I caught my very first fish, 2 big bluegills and a 13 1/2" smallmouth bass, on Lake Missaukee in Lake City. As a small kid, my mom used to take us to a "resort" in Indian River, run by a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Brunk every summer.  I scattered her ashes near the Cross in the Woods, near that location after she lost her battle with breast cancer, and lit a candle for her in the chapel there.
And, as a Boy Scout, my troop went to Roscommon every summer for our annual canoe trip on the Au Sable river.

So this clearly is a very nostalgic (as well as very beautiful) drive for me, bringing many memories back, and making me feel as though I was really home again!

Anyway, we arrived Sunday evening about 9 PM  at my freinds, Gary and Mary Rogers Escanaba home. I went to high school with them many years ago, and we hadn't seen each other in probably 25 years, but seeing them again was like it had been yesterday. We just started talking and sharing stories as though there had never been a gap! We were their guests for the next few days, managing to work in some sightseeing, some partying, and some dang fine salmon fishing! We brought in 5 between the 4 of us on Wednesday, the largest being 18-20 lbs. or so!

Thursday afternoon, we made the hour drive to Iron Mountain and checked in for the UP Hog Wild event.

Setting up Thursday made Friday a breeze! Unlike many teams, we do all our trimming onsite. I realize many have told us that doing it in advance makes life easier, but something about doing it on site kind of helps get me "in the zone". So, once our inspectors ok'd our meat, all snug in it's factory cryo wrapper, I started trimming, removing almost all outer fat from the pork butts (where there's fat there will be no bark), trimming up the brisket (only did one), the ribs (five slabs, separating tips from St. Louis spares) and trimming up the chicken. All of which took just under 2 hours. Then I mixed up our pork and rib injections, tossed them in the cooler, and took a little break, wandering around to see who had arrived since the night before.

We saw many old freinds, and made some new ones, as usually happens at these events. As I may have mentioned before, the Barbecue community is by a large an extended family of sorts. Most everyone would do just about anything to help another, despite the rivalries that can't help but exist in such a competitive environment. The atmosphere is not unlike a really big family reunion! And everyone shares the same passion for bbq, no matter if you spell it barbeque, barbecue, Bar-B-Q, etc.

I had some particularly large pork butts this time (9.5 and 12 lbs respectively), so instead of putting them on at 6PM, as I usually would do, I had them on as soon as the cooks meeting (3PM) was over. At that point, we had a little dinner, and headed out on the "shot fairy" rounds.

We'd been concerned about our freinds Ron and Amy, of Captain Ron's Brew-n-Que, because we'd heard they had trailer trouble just north of Milwaukee, but were happy to see that they had made it in around 6 PM, sporting 2 new trailer leaf springs, and a couple new tires. They were a little behind, but caught up quickly to schedule.

We finally returned from our Friday evening "rounds" about 1:30 AM, to find the pork running a little low, at around 195 degrees. I tweaked the vents a bit and we called it a night.

At about 6 AM, I got up, checked temp, and found it to be holding at around 200...not quite as high as I'd have liked, but still cruising along. Tweaked the vents a bit more, and began the process of cooking everything else. At about 12:20, our freinds (and hosts) Gary and Mary arrived with a freind as we were prepping our rib box, and talked with us through rib and pork turn in. They followed Diane to the turn in area, and tried to peek in the best they were able to see what was going on in the judging tent. They then took a walk around the team area to see how other teams were coping with turn-in while we were readying our brisket. Once we had that turned in, they headed back toward Escanaba, as they were expecting company for a "celebration party" for our success, which at the time was not really determined.

Turn ins done, we straightened up and started putting things away, and grabbed a quick shower before awards so we didn't both look like wet rats! When we left the cooks area, and entered the grounds where the awards ceremony was being held, we encountered a rather overzealous security officer, who not only was not allowing any alcohol onto the field (remember now, cooks paid 200-225$ to cook this contest) They were also making folks with unopened soft drinks (iced tea, pop, etc.) turn around and take them out.

Now, the first time we walked in, we had our pup and mascot, Ember with us, and Barnelia Fife said nothing about her, just the beer we we returned to a freinds site and left our beverages behind. On returning, she NOW said that our Ember would not be allowed either, instead of simply having said something earlier. At this point, I might have become a bit belligerent, but she really could have said someting before!

Chris, the organizer and ringmaster of the BBQ contest smoothed things over and made it clear to Barnelia that Ember was our mascot, and would be on the field and supervised at all times. (She will only heed natures call when she knows it's ok, and wouldn't do anything in a crowded public place anyway!)

Turned out it was a good thing, as we were called to the stage for 1st place pork (our first EVER first place in any category) and 6th place brisket! Very high marks against some of the esteemed company we were cooking with!

Floating on air, we went back to our site after the awards ceremony and finished packing up. Upon returning to Gary and Mary's place in Escanaba, we put out our still hot leftovers (held in a Carlisle food holding unit) for the folks at the party. Seemed everyone enjoyed it all immensely, even the meats that didn't get calls!

Party finally died out about 4AM, and so did we!

Sunday, we awoke not nearly as late as we'd have liked, had breakfast, said goodbye to all the revelers, and our great hosts, and at about 2PM we headed first west out of Escanaba, then south through Wisconsin and make our way home.

So....11 days on the road, 2 contests, 3 calls, one storm/microburst, a great fishing trip, and a reunion with old freinds! Wow....what a vacation, and what a great time!

Now it's time for a break! We have a party to cater on 8/7, and a party to attend, seeing Jimmy Buffett at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL on 8/14. May be a neighborhood block party later in August, and September 3-4, we'll be heading to Milwaukee to load up the smokers again!

Life is truly good!

You can see a slideshow here....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A sunny weekend...well, almost!

So things went more or less ok in Lowell, once all the drama of getting there was behind us.

We were cruising along ok...I wasn't really happy with the parsley and lettuce we brought, lets just say it didn't travel well. But we managed to put together 4 " not godawful" boxes, well, I thought we did.

Chicken was, all in all, not a very good entry for us.  But there were bright spots. Usually, we're somewhere near the bottom of the barrel. We kind of swim upstream, given that the common rule is thighs rule. We are silly enough to believe that chicken breast can score. So far, we've only been right once out of 12 times...but this wasn't all bad....we had a 999, and a 988 score....along with an 877, a 668, a 688, and a 767. For those that are not familiar, the first number is for appearance of the entry, second is for taste, and third is texture.  Appearance is worth 1/2 of what taste is, taste is worth half of what texture is. (per KCBS rules) Anyway, we were 13 of 30...not as bad as usual! At least we were top half!

Ribs were not what I'd hoped, as I'd had trouble maintaining a constant temp of around 225. Go much higher and you don't get exactly what one would like, but when I tasted them, I thought we had a decent shot at some kind of call. We put together a pretty nice box. (appearance scores 888886.....6?...WTF?) Thing was....right after we finished the box, this glorious sunny, hot, day...the day the weather-guessers said would have NO CHANCE of any sort of shower, a freak storm blew up out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we had sideways rain, and winds that must have run up to 50-60 mph! One team actually lost thier ribs to the wind, another lost thier of those pole houses they sell at the warehouse stores. We had some losses, some of our stuff blew away, some got soaked and ruined. We had several tree limbs fell in our sauce pots, but we were already finished with them, (the sauces) so no huge loss. Most importantly, nobody was hurt!

Something I have to mention is the assistance that Tom and Pam Bagby and thier freind, gave us, keeping our EZ-UP from blowing away during that little  "micro-burst". When the rain and wind started, Diane was semi-panicked, with memories of last years Elk Grove contest dancing in her head.Tom and another gentlemen, who were across from us when all hell broke loose, were kind enough to help us prevent the destruction of our canopy. For thier efforts, we awarded them with as much food as they wanted, and Tom at least, stayed around visiting for a while while his lovely wife Pam went to make sure their classic VW convertible was protected from the elements. He asked lots of questions about what we cooked, how we cooked it, etc....all the while we were doing pork, and then brisket, but we were happy to talk with him and share a few samples, because, as well told them, they were more than just visitors now, they were truly freinds!

We finished up with pork, in 5th place, and brisket in 16th, a 17th place finish overall. But, if nothing else, we were top 5 in both of our 2 comps this year in pork, so we must be doing something right! We stayed overnight Saturday, and enjoyed Lowell's wonderful fireworks show, and to Escanaba, on the second leg of the circle Lake Michigan tour!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Ride to Lowell

Well, Nothing it seems, is ever easy! Half way through Indiana, we were slowed quite a bit by a horrendous accident. A semi on the eastbound side apparently had run abruptly into a large road contruction vehicle. The cab of the semi was in pretty much a total state of destruction! Said a prayer for that guy!

 Then, when we made a pit stop at the first rest stop in Michigan, I noticed the trailer had lost the passenger side wheel bearing cover, resulting is something resembling one of those spatter paint projects from years ago. Knowing we couldn't go much farther without risk of a bearing meltdown, we set about finding a store that sold Wheel bearing caps (and maybe also wheel bearings themselves). We finally found a store called Tractor Supply, kind of like a Farm and Fleet type place that had both. I bought 2 sets of bearings, a can of grease, a dozen or so cotter pins, and some cleaning supplies . I then pulled the wheel in the parking lot, repacked the bearings (an inspection showed they were still ok although there were traces of some of the grease overheating) and we were on our way again, finally making it into Lowell at about 7:30, about 3-4 hours later than we'd hoped. But at least now we have spare parts!
It was hot, muggy, and buggy, but we got set up and got the AC going ...and blew a fuse! Oh well, a trip to the nearest Meijer store for lots of replacement fuses, and some badly needed water.

Today was much better.  We finished setting up, and I began working on prepping our meat. As of 9:15, all but chicken is prepped, the butts are in and holding at 220 degrees nicely, and we're about to go on the rounds of the "shot fairy". At our first contest, 2 years ago, my wife Diane began taking shots of an apple pie flavored beverage we make, as a way to introduce herself to folks. At the time, I was too intensely into what I was doing, and too new at it, to join her, but now, I go when I'm able.

This is always the interesting night. Jitters about how things will go, and worries about what might go wrong often combine with the fun of meeting old freinds, making new ones, and, as the night goes on, that sweet smell of food cooking over sweet blue smoke.

Nothing like it!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Does it HAVE to be this hot?!?!?!?! it is, the day before we embark on a "circle Lake Michigan" BBQ tour, it's 7 AM and already nearing 90 degrees! Should make packing up all the more special!

We leave tomorrow for Lowell, Michigan, a really great little town that wakes up for a weekend and plays host to thousands for thier Riverwalk festival. Last year was their first effort at doing a BBQ contest, and they did a great job! We are really looking forward to this years event, and hope we can improve our scores from last year, (11th of 21 overall, 3rd ribs, 6th brisket) Our freinds the Smokin Scotsmen took the grand championship, and we couldn't have been happier for them.

So anyway, now it's this year. The thermometer is spiking, and it looks as though we'll be dodging the raindrops today and tomorrow, but we're still pretty psyched!

Now, I should say, there is a HUGE contest this same weekend, and it's closer to us, in Shannon IL. The "Field of Dreams" as it's called it one of the larger and more highly rated comps going. And word has it this may be it's last year, as the folks largely responsible for it, Mike and Theresa Lake, are talking retirement to warmer climes. If that happens, we'll miss them dearly, as they are the nicest folks you'd ever want to meet, and Mike, as the acting president of KCBS, is, to us anyway, kind of the face of barbecue. But Lowell is more on our route to what follows, the UP Hog Wild competition in Kingsford, Michigan (UP der eh?)
So we will forgo the annual spectacular thunderstorms, gale force winds, etc of Shannon in favor of the hopefully more hospitible climes of my home state of Michigan! I'll be keeping an eye out for Shannon results though. Best of luck to all our freinds competing there!

Well, enough chatter, it's time to load the trailer and hit the Restaurant Depot! Updates to follow.......

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Westmont, IL - Our first competition of 2010

The 2010 season begins!

We enjoyed a beautiful (but HOT!!!) Memorial Day weekend at Westmont, Illinois' Ty Warner park, competing in thier 4th annual Red, White, and BBQ contest. This is a rare Saturday-Sunday contest (most are Friday-Saturday) but the organizers allowed setup on Friday for those either travelling from out of town, or those that wanted to be set up early so we could better enjoy the weekend.

I opened up our pop-up camper for the first time this year on Thursday to load up the cookers and supplies, and make sure everything was working. Had to do a small sink repair, and also found our onboard water tank had a leak. No time to fix it so just drained it and moved on. We packed up everything into the camper and truck Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, and headed for the site. We arrived and setup our site next to our freinds Nick and Beth of Moose BBQ,  and watched as the other teams began to arrive. 2 doors down was Chris from the Bartlet Boneheads, straight across were Tyler and his sons from Logjammin BBQ, and on our other side were Keith and Rebecca of KRE smokers, who I've mentioned in earlier posts.

Friday evening the event entertainment kicked in and some of the many great bands they'd booked for the weekend began to play just about 100 or so yards from us. As the night unfolded, we took a stroll to check out who all was there, and shared some conversation and libations with old freinds, and met some new ones. As tends to happen when we do these things, we stayed up WAY too late, turned in at 3AM, and woke up at 6 to the sound of the porta-potty trucks' backup beeper...ugh! When we emerged from the camper, I saw that teams from the amatuer comp (ribs only, any fuel allowed) queued up waiting to be told where to go, as well as more pro teams trickling in.

Since the comp is so close to our house, Di headed home to get a shower. I walked to the Wendy's on the corner to grab some breakfast, and on the way back visited with some of the new arrivals rolling in. Chuck from team Old Ken Chuckie in MI, Pat and Dan from Brew-B-Que, and others were just setting up. Once Di got back, I headed home for my turn in the shower, and to make up our dessert for the comp, mini key lime tarts with blackberry and blueberry topping. I'd made key lime pies before, but these tarts had a curd base, in lieu of the sweetened condensed milk used in a pie. Really tasty, but a lot more work than the pie!

Got back to the site, and began prepping our meat for the cooker. Many folks do this at home, but I never seem to have the time, and always end up prepping onsite. I kind of like doing it that way anyway, as the meat inspectors never question whether our meats were pre-seasoned. Once everything was prepped, injected (where needed) and seasoned, we headed to the cooks meeting, after which we tossed our 2 butts on the cooker, and began to settle in for the evenings festivities. The entertainment was great this year, plus, our neighbors had a flat screen set up to watch the Hawks game, which was a nail biter! But the Hawks prevailed!

Sunday, again, Diane went to pick up the refrigerated dessert, grab a shower and return. I had to cook, so no shower for me. I did the last prep of chicken, but was running a bit behind. I got the briskets in earlier, checked the butts, got the ribs ready and into the cooker, and realized I had exactly 90 minutes to cook the chicken before my target done time of 11:30. Yikes! Got them in though, so now all I could do is keep watch on the cookers and wait.

At 11:35, I pulled the chicken and tented it to rest 10-15 minutes. I guess the first comp of the year jitters got the best of me, and I forgot to steel my knife to get as keen an edge as possible, and I ended up making an unholy mess of the skin. But at least we turned in on time. Helped that we were just 2 doors down from the turn in!

Next, the ribs. I put the final coat of sauce on at 12:10, pulled them at 12:15, and had the best 8 ribs of the 4 slabs I cooked in the box and on the way at 12:25. Finally got to taste one and was very happy with them, although I thought they might be a little on the bland side. Oh well, too late, they were gone!

By this time, my nerves were settled, and it no longer felt like our first comp ever, instead of just the first this year.  Pork looked overdone at first, but I was able to find a sliceable chunk, and some decent pull. Tried a light coating of a new sauce also. Then came the brisket. I was a bit dissapointed that I didn't get it out of the foil in time to crisp up the bark a bit, but it was tender and tasty, so I was pleased.

Finally came dessert, I put the curd into the crusts and all seemed ok, they looked beautiful, until the sun hit them, when they immediately began to melt!  Diane does all the turn in's, so only she knows what it looked like when it hit the table.

We packed and cleaned for the 2 hours leading up to the awards ceremony, and even though we knew we had an hour of packing up left after (if we didn't chat with folks much), at 4:50, we headed off to hear the results.

Chicken - nothing for us. No surprise, I totally shredded the thing!

Ribs - I had pretty high hopes here, but no calls. Now the heat is starting to get to me, and I'm thinking
we're going to have a dissappointing day.

Pork Butt - They'd read 10th through 3rd place, and not mentioned our name...and then they did!
2nd place pork!?!?!? Against this crowd???? Holy buckets Batman!!!! This was our first top two call ever! My hands were shaking too badly to free Ember from her leash to take her up with us to get the award! We went up to the stage, picked up our check and trophy, had our pic taken, and went back to our seats to let the shock sink in!

Brisket - OK, so I thought our brisket was pretty good....and we had a call under our belt. Maybe we have a chance here I'm thinking. Sure enough, 5th place. Not what I'd hoped for, but I'll take a top 5 (and another hundred bucks!

Dessert, we weren't in the top 5, and they only read the top 5, so, oh well, better luck next time!

All in all, a great competition, at a great venue, and a really great time! We rolled in to the driveway at about 8:30 PM, tired, but happy. Now I only needed to get up at 7 the next morning to go march with the VFW in the parade in the morning! .......

The summer has officially started!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Our second year

Our second year began with an unsanctioned event called the Winter Burnoff. This is a mostly for fun event, but it also raises money for the organizers charity, NOAH (the National Organization for Albinism and Hyperpigmentation) It's held in the parking lot of a bowling alley in Des Plaines, IL. Rather than the normal chicken, ribs, pork butt, and brisket categories of KCBS, given that it's only a one day event, they change the categories to chicken, ribs, sausage, and pork loin or tenderloin. We managed to take 2nd place pork, and our year was off to a good start! We cooked 6 competitions in 2008, and had calls in 4 of them. We took 5th place ribs in Elk Grove, 3rd place ribs and 6th place brisket in Lowell, MI, 3rd place brisket in Milwaukee, WI,(see photo!) and in Arthur, IL, at the Central Illinois Bragging rights state championship, we took 5th place chicken and 6th place brisket! So a total of 6 calls for 6 comps. A good improvement from the year before. We made many more new freinds over the season, and got to visit a lot with old ones. We've upped our game a bit, we no longer use a tent, we opted for a used pop-up camper last July, which made shelter better, and made the task of packing and unpacking for comps far easier!

So now, it's April of 2010. Time to start prepping the trailer, doing practice cooks, and getting ready for a new season. Given the economy, we're really not sure which comps we'll do this year. We've paid the entry for Westmont, IL in May, and we definitely want to go to the UP Hog Wild comp in Kingsford, MI in July, and Arthur in the fall. Beyond that, we just don't know yet. For now, looking forward to and getting ready for Westmont on Memorial weekend!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How this all started

About 4 years ago, my wife Diane and I were watching a program on the Food Network about a barbecue competition. I honestly don't remember who the sanctioning body was, KCBS or MIM, but it was pretty interesting. We both love to cook, and the idea of competition seemed appealing. It also looked like a great way to have fun!

So I did some research, and found that there was going to be a KCBS judging class in a nearby town the following February. I joined the Kansas City BBQ Society and signed up for the class. I figured, if we were going to try and cook, I'd better figure out what the judges were instructed to look for. Should have signed Diane up also, but she took the class the following year.

In the summer of 2007, we judged contests in Westmont, IL, Elk Grove, IL, Shannon, IL, and Libertyville, IL. Not a tremendous amount of contests, but enough to get a pretty good feel for what was being turned in. And we felt like, with some practice, we could maybe hold our own with some of the teams we met on the circuit.

We spoke with a lot of the teams that seemed to be showing up at all these events we attended, and decided that, the following year, we'd give competition "que" a try!

We already, at that time, owned a 20+ year old Weber WSM and a Big Green Egg ceramic cooker, but not having any easy method of hauling the egg around, (They are VERY heavy!) we picked up 2 more WSM's over the winter. And I started cooking on them as often as I could to try and get comfortable with the 4 categories, work on flavor profiles, etc.

Our first competition came in 2008, at the Red, White, & BBQ Memorial Day weekend, in Westmont, IL. We hauled all our stuff (and we had WAY too much stuff) in a rented U-Haul trailer. People have quite a number of different sleeping arrangements at contests. Some sleep in lawn chairs or recliners inside sleeping bags under their EZ-Up canopies, some in tents, many in thier cars and trucks, some in the cargo trailers they haul their stuff in, and some, the fortunate ones, in travel trailers or mobile homes. We were in the tent group that year.
When all was said and done, we were 24th in a field of 45 overall, 32nd in chicken, 27th in ribs, 22nd in pork, and 18th in brisket. Not too disappointing a start. We were especially happy to be above the middle of the pack in brisket.

Next was Elk Grove Rotary Ribfest, Fathers Day weekend, where we were soundly spanked! 34th of 37 overall, we achieved our first (and so far, thankfully last) DAL in chicken (37 of 37), 21st in ribs, 25th in pork, and 27th in brisket. OK, so far we weren't setting the world of Barbecue on fire, but we were having fun, making new freinds, and learning a LOT!

Our next comp was in July, at the Illinois State Championship contest in Shannon, IL. This is one of the bigger competitions in Illinois, and brings folks from all over the country. There were 62 teams total that year in Shannon, and we ended up 47th. Our chicken again was close to last at 58th, ribs 33rd, pork 50th, and brisket 41st. There was a heck of a thunderstorm that Friday night, and I'm still not sure how our tent and EZ up survived the night! But we managed to get through it, and had a great time at the very least.

Our final comp that year was in September, at the Zoo-B-Cue State Champioinship in Racine Wisconsin. This was a very cool event, held inside the Racine zoo. A beautiful setting right on the shore of Lake Michigan. We were 19th of 34 overall. Our chicken barely avoided DAL, coming in 33rd. Our ribs, 18th, our brisket, 19th. But, wonder of wonders, we heard our name called for 3rd place in pork!

I don't think there is any way to describe the feeling the first time you hear your name called in the top ten (let alone the top 5) and get to take that walk to the stage! Actually, there was a tie, to 4 decimal points for second place between us and our neighbor, Brew-B-Cue. But they won the tie-breaker. Didn't matter, we were floating on air! And the hook, as they say, was set...